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Painter Christopher Volpe connects environmental conditions to our historic, literary past


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A new exhibit in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the Whaling Museum is connecting today's environmental conditions to our historical and literary past.

Painter Christopher Volpe has created works that take on an apocalyptic tone, pointing to today's reliance on fossil fuel, the modern-day whale oil.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston reports as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: The cobblestone streets still invite clatter. Lamps continue to light the way, and clapboard buildings beckon, as they always have. This is the New Bedford from whence Herman Melville launched "Moby-Dick."

Christopher Volpe, Artist: It's a New England tale. Talks about the damp, drizzly November of his soul.

There's always been a darker side to American art and literature, particularly in New England.

Jared Bowen: People still gather here every year in person or virtually for a marathon reading of the novel. This year, actor Sam Waterston was Ishmael.

Sam Waterson, Actor: Why, upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you feel yourself such a mystical vibration when first told that you and your ship are now out of sight of land?

Christopher Volpe: I think you can see "Moby-Dick" as a portrait of America and our worst impulses and where they will take us we don't rein them in.

Jared Bowen: Artist Christopher Volpe has painted a series of works that seemingly tear out of the novels pages. They are now on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in an exhibition named after Moby-Dick's first chapter.

CHRISTOPHER VOLPE: The title is "Loomings." And it seemed appropriate for a -- what is looming on the horizon, just the sense of -- a sense foreboding, hints that we're getting, hints of apocalypse.

Jared Bowen: Apocalyptic darkness swirls in these paintings, as Volpe charts Melville's course from the 19th century to the 21st, when the world's reliance on whale oil eventually gave way to petroleum.

Christopher Volpe: I saw the parallel between the hubris of Ahab and the peril of America and the globe, as we are tempting the gods with continued fossil fuel extraction.

Jared Bowen: So, what we find here, these dark, ghostly images of ship, storm and belching smoke, are rendered not in black paint, but tar.

Christopher Volpe: Both of these paintings started as fields of tar.

There's a couple different ways that I can approach a painting. One way is to just grab a big brush and just begin making lines, making shapes gestures. The other is a subtractive method, or the opposite, where coat a whole canvas with tar, and then go in and remove tar with rags and look for the shapes within there.

Jared Bowen: And all while wearing a gas mask.

Christopher Volpe: I have to wear a respirator because it's pretty toxic.

Jared Bowen: Pretty great symbolism in the fact that you have to wear a mask as you're painting.

Christopher Volpe: Yes, yes. And it's -- there's a great quote: Art recycles a culture's toxins.

And, literally, I'm doing that. I'm taking this poisonous gunk, which wants to pull us down into dissolution and death, and I'm trying to invest it with beauty.

Jared Bowen: In college, Volpe was a poetry major who arrived at painting by way of his love for 19th century landscapes for all their beauty.

Christopher Volpe: But that became problematic when I realized that nature is on the run. I fell into what the poet Shelley said, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Naomi Slipp, Chief Curator, Whaling Museum: These paintings are like poetry, right? They have a meter. They have a moment that you kind of -- you can move through and interpret.

Jared Bowen: Naomi Slipp is the museum's chief curator. She says, by design, we find Volpe's paintings in a gallery that looks out beyond the city's historic streets to a waterfront that once floated a whaling industry and now a thriving fishing one.

Naomi Slipp: And you see the docks and the ships and the kind of activity of the waterfront as it continues. And then you can come into the exhibition spaces and hopefully find exhibits like Christopher's that speak to the larger challenges of addressing global warming, ocean warming, and marine mammal health.

Jared Bowen: It's a conversation that Herman Melville launched in 1851 and, says Christopher Volpe, in his work, he's realized it's time we shape up or ship out.

Christopher Volpe: Maybe it's time for a new kind of beauty, a beauty that doesn't sugarcoat the darker side of reality, but redeems it somehow by making it visible and yet not repugnant and allows us to see things we wouldn't ordinarily see and be able to deal with them in ways that maybe we haven't yet.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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